Remember when you were in school and teams were being picked for gym class or recess? How did that feel? I don’t know about you, but I always felt like I got the short end of that. I was always one of the kids waiting … and waiting … to be picked. I was so relieved when someone finally picked me for their team! 

No one wants to be the last person standing after everyone else is chosen. It’s human nature. We want to be selected. We want other people to choose us for their team. That’s just as true in our professional lives as it was when we were in school. And then we are just so grateful that someone tapped us for a project, we give it our all. We pour everything we have into it to prove that we were worthy of being chosen.

You know what the problem with that is? 

When you sit back and wait to be chosen, it’s tough to be in control of your career. You end up working on whatever projects happen to come your way. You let others set the agenda for your career and set the parameters for how you show up. You’re being reactive, instead of proactive—and it’s hard to advance your ambitions when you’re stuck in reaction mode.

This is a thorny subject for women and, particularly, women of color. We’ve been raised to be helpful. To do what others ask of us. Many of us are people pleasers. But sitting back and waiting to be chosen is not an effective modus operandi for conducting your career.

If you want to advance your career—and drive your own success—it’s important to put some thought into the projects you work on. You need to be smart and strategic about how and where you show up in your professional life. Yes, we have to be team players. We all have to be on other people’s teams. Sometimes we have to pitch in and do what’s needed. But if that’s what you’re doing all the time, you’re missing out on the opportunities you need to get ahead. 

It’s time to get proactive and pick projects that allow you to grow, stretch, and shine! Ask yourself these five questions when considering a project:

1. Will this project help me develop my top strengths?

Think strategically about the types of projects that will allow your talents to shine. What are your top five strengths? Then look for projects that need those strengths—those are the projects that will really set you up for success. 

2.  Will it give me exposure to the right people?

I decided to support an event last week because I wanted to be exposed to the CEO of a company that I needed to talk to. I chose that project because I needed that exposure. That was a conscious decision I made. Don’t shy away from visibility! Choose projects that will get you noticed by the leadership team or influential decision-makers.

3.  Can I be a leader on this project?

 Choose projects that will give you the leadership opportunities you need to advance. Leaders don’t sit back and wait to be picked. Identify the ones that will help you develop your leadership skills and position you within the company for greater roles.

4.   Is this project core to the company’s business?

This is a big one, but not always as obvious—especially when we’re working hard, we’re busy, we’re involved, and we’re doing all the things. You’re putting in the hours. But you need to audit where those hours are going. Are you spending your time and energy on things that are on the periphery of what’s important to the organization? How does the company make their money? What’s driving their revenue? 

There are support functions and then there are core functions—and those can vary, depending on the business. It might be sales. It might be product marketing or government relations. Follow the money trail and you’ll find the core function. Ask yourself—are you expending all of your talents and time on projects that are in support functions? You want to get as close to the core as possible, because when you’re on the periphery, it’s harder to get exposure to leadership, to demonstrate your skills and talents to the people who matter. 

I see a lot of women—and particularly women of color—who are stuck on the periphery of core operations. That’s where all of our energy is and then we get frustrated when our value isn’t seen, acknowledged, and tapped. Identify projects that are core. That’s where you’ll get support and exposure.  

5.  Will this project be a game-changer for my career? 

When you’re operating from your strengths and talents, everyone will want you. Getting picked won’t be a problem! But are they good enough for you? Are they offering you opportunities that will advance your career? Have you outgrown certain types of projects? Sometimes you have to say “no” to dead-end projects, so that you can say “yes” to the projects that will make a difference in your life and to your organization. It’s the 80-20 rule. Put your time and talent on the work that will bring you the best return—80 percent of your time on the twenty percent of your work that’s most important. 

I know, I know. Right now, you’re thinking, “But Cheryle, how do I get these amazing projects?” I get it. It can be hard to negotiate your way into the juicy assignments, especially if a company’s culture is male-dominated or if you’re different from the core culture. 

Here’s what I used to do. When I came up against that wall, professionally, I would pick projects that no one else wanted to take on. The hard projects. The ones that are all guts and no glory. I told myself that if I solved a problem that no one else was willing to solve, that’s how I could get the exposure I needed. And that approach can work. But it’s high risk. If you take on too many of the all-guts-and-no-glory projects, you’ll get burned eventually. There’s a reason why certain problems are tough to solve and why no one else wants to hitch themselves to that horse.

When you’re an outsider to the culture, solving a problem no one else wants to can get you off the bench and up to the plate. But be careful about this becoming your default position. You don’t want to be defined as the go-to person for all the things no one else wants to do. You don’t want others to see that as your only value. 

So where do you find these juicy projects? Look at the “high potentials” in your organization. When leadership decides that they like someone—when they see a lot of potential in them—they give them projects that will stretch them, that will grow their potential, and advance their career. So watch for which projects the “high potentials” get—those are the projects that are core to the business. Set your sights on those.

Your career is like an investment portfolio. You need a mix. Don’t be glad just to be picked. You can be a team player to advance the organization, but you also want projects that you select—projects that build your skill set, get you exposure to decision-makers, and offer you leadership opportunities. 

This applies to entrepreneurs, too. As career free agents, we can fire companies and clients. You are wholly responsible for the trajectory of your career. If a particular client no longer offers projects that let you grow and that expose you to the right people, it’s time to fire them. Yes, it’s scary, but projects that grow you are more valuable than money in the long term. Doing the same types of work over and over will keep you in the same place. 

Where does the “Pick me! Pick me!” mentality come from? It comes from your self-worth and your identity. As kids, we might not have had the confidence needed to march right up and put ourselves on the team we wanted to join. But today, you are a strong, competent woman. You get to decide who you are and what your identity is. Not your family. Not your friends. Certainly not your boss. You.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to belong. In fact, I love this title that some companies are adding—Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. We all want to belong. But you don’t get the big sexy projects by just wanting to belong. You get those plum assignments by knowing your value.

When you know your value, you won’t settle for just anything, anywhere. Not at work, not in your family, not in your personal life, not anywhere in your life. People pleasing also comes from that same place of self worth, self value, and wanting to belong. When you’re a people pleaser, you’ll say “yes” to a lot of things that you have no business saying “yes” to. When you say “yes” to too many things—or “yes” to things that are not in alignment with your goals—you lose out on opportunities, money, revenue, networking, and meeting decision-makers. When you are talented and walking in your gifts, lots of people will want to choose you for their team. But do you want them? Are they offering you projects that are right for you?

Before you say “yes” to your next project, get clear about your goals and where you’re headed. Understand what you bring to the table. Be confident and anchored in who you are. You do the choosing.

If you’re ready to take charge of your career, there’s no better time than right now. Join my g2Coach community today and gain clarity, confidence, and a game plan to transform your growth with coaches, resources, empowering content, and an amazing tribe of ambitious women eager to support one another. Get your first month’s membership for just $1!